Today would have been my maternal grandfather’s 100th birthday.
I have his birthday in my calendar and when he passed nine years ago at the age of ninety-one, I didn’t delete it. So every year, I get a reminder, and last night it told me “Tomorrow: David Kipnes 100th Birthday.”
He almost made it, too.
When I told my wife I was going to write about my grandfather, she said, “You’re getting sentimental in your old age.” Which struck me as funny ’cause, man, I’ve been sentimental my whole life. I still own the baby blanket my parents put in my crib, for God’s sake! (It’s even older than I am. The blanket was probably manufactured in the late sixties; I was manufactured in 1971.)
This is my mother’s father, my Zadie, in 1991 at the spry age of 75, with my Bubie:
She predeceased him by a little over six years. In those six years, I watched him go from inconsolable and incoherent with grief, a man who wanted to die, to laughing with his first great-grandchild (my niece) and claiming that he’d told God he wanted to live to be a hundred.
“And then I told God,” he went on with a twinkle in his eye, “that if He wouldn’t let me get to one hundred, that would be all right — I’ll take a hundred and ten.”
A hundred and ten. Can you imagine?
Another time he said this to me: “I want to make it to a hundred. And I’m talking to God about another hundred after that, but we’ll see. I doubt He’ll give it to me, but that’s what I would like.”
You have to understand something about this God talk — don’t read it as serious and portentous and religious. My Zadie didn’t have time for that. If he believed in a God, it was in a happy trickster God. A God you could play cards with and tell very inappropriate jokes to.
Here he is in World War II, serving at some ridiculously hot and humid post south of the equator:
That’s him on the right. And if he took that cap off, you’d see he had damn near no hair even then. (Thanks for passing down those genes, Zadie. And to my unborn son: I’m sorry for what you’re going to inherit, kid.)
Here’s a bit of what I said in my eulogy:
I think of stories, when I think of him. He had a million of them….
God, could the man tell stories.
I think of him, I think of the stories. When I close my eyes, I can see him, I can hear him. Running through a segment of narrative, so clear and sure. Then, suddenly, stopping. And you could almost hear his brain working as he searched for the right word. The perfect word. He was fastidious about that. He had an astonishing vocabulary and if sometimes the pages on his mental thesaurus took a little extra thumbing-through, well, he was fine with that. I would watch and listen and wait to see which word he was going to pull out of nowhere.
It was amazing to watch him tell stories. He would lose track of himself and go off on these crazy tangents, making my mother say, “Get to the point, Daddy,” but he couldn’t be deterred. He would just keep plowing through and rambling and stacking words into sentences and paragraphs until somehow he came back to his main story and managed to wrap it up.
It took him dying for me to realize that my own proclivity for storytelling came — at least in part — from him. One more gift passed down, and if male pattern baldness is the flip side of that coin, well, I’m okay with that.
One hundred. Damn.
Having a child necessarily and logically kickstarts your sense of mortality. I’m going to die, which isn’t a surprise, but suddenly seems to matter. I always said that I would leave behind a couple of bookshelves, but of course now I will also be leaving behind children.
I’m not one of those people who believe that you live on through your kids. I think that’s actually a noxious idea that obviates your children’s own essential humanity. They’re not your legacy; they’re their legacy. Go build your own.
My other grandfather lived to ninety-three, so if you buy into such things, I drew a decent number in the longevity lottery. Given modern medicine, if I don’t do anything stupid, I can probably beat their scores and hit triple digits.
My wife says to me — whenever I mention this — “Do you really want to live that long?”
And I say, “Hell, yes!”
I don’t want to live forever, mind you. I’ve read too many comic books and sci-fi novels to be sold on the idea on immortality. But somewhere in the low one hundreds sounds nice to me. Long enough to know my grandkids, not merely see and hold them.
Let me shift families for a second here.
This is my dad’s side of the family. In the back row, you’ve got my grandmother and my dad. The woman sitting on the arm of the chair is my grandmother’s mother. And the lady who looks just thrilled to be there is my great-great-grandmother. I, of course, am the dude with no hair sitting in her lap.
Five generations. Apparently, this was a big enough deal that the local newspaper ran this photo. I have a clipping somewhere, but I can’t put my hands on it right now.
Five generations. My great-great-grandmother lived long enough to hold her great-great-grandson in her arms. I never knew her, but she at least met me.
I knew my great-grandmother very well. (It helped that she got married when she was, like, fifteen. The past is a different world, people…) And of course I was lucky enough to know all of my grandparents for a very, very long time.
I can’t imagine even the combination of genetics and medical advances pushing me to the point that I can get to know my great-grandchildren much less my great-great grandchildren (especially if my kids wait as long as I did to have their own), but I think I can be around for a few years after the grandkids are born. And hell maybe, just maybe, I can play the role of the dour old person sitting in the chair, holding one of their clueless babies. My great-grandkids won’t know me, but they’ll have the picture.
Is it crazy to want this? Frivolous? Maybe. Probably. But my life was endlessly enriched by knowing my grandparents, and even just by seeing that photo, of knowing that my great-great-grandmother (who by that point in her life probably just wanted to be left alone) held me.
This is what we can give them. We can show them, Here is who and where you come from. We touched your skin and you touched ours. We were real.
I thought of my Zadie as the Happy Zenmaster. The man could laugh heartily even while breathing through an oxygen mask. He could do yoga moves that make my tendons ache just thinking about them when he was in seventies.
Man, I miss him. I miss all of them, to tell the truth, but today he would have been a century old and I miss him so much. I miss his laughter and I miss his stories and I miss the goofy words he invented, the ones that sounded like they should actually be real words, but weren’t.
He had a big, echoing laugh, unself-conscious, the kind that embarrassed you in restaurants.
I would give a lot to hear it again.